One of the classic Beltway memes is that both major parties are equally responsible for lack of progress towards getting federal spending under control. A classic of the genre is a new op-ed by “reasonable” and “responsible” Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, who was a member of the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction commission last year, and until recently a member of the senatorial “Gang of Six” that many deficit hawks have considered the best avenue for a bipartisan breakthrough.
Here’s all you really need to read of Coburn’s manifesto:
The solution is obvious. Democrats have to accept the reality that structural entitlement reform is necessary. Republicans have to accept the reality that in order to get Democrats to make those changes we will have to agree to tax reform that will increase revenue but not rates. This solution isn’t a betrayal of either party’s values, but a defense of those values on behalf of future generations. Again, doing nothing would be the real act of betrayal that would lead to both higher taxes and the demise of entitlement programs for the poor and elderly.
You will notice right away several oddities about this “obvious” and high-minded solution. There’s no mention of defense spending (to be fair, Coburn himself has in the past suggested that Pentagon spending should not be “off the table,” but that still violates GOP orthodoxy, as reflected in the kid glove treatment defense spending receives in both of the supposedly tight-fisted budget resolutions, Paul Ryan’s and Pat Toomey’s). And there’s certainly no admission that maybe “structural” reforms in defense spending might be under consideration.
Speaking of the word “structural,” use of that modifier to talk about entitlement programs presumably suggests the kind of radical approaches Ryan has talked about: changing Social Security and Medicare from defined benefit to defined contributions progams, for example. You wouldn’t know from reading this that the biggest impetus to increased Medicare spending is a health care cost spiral that the Affordable Care Act, opposed by all Republicans, took the first major steps to address.
And finally, there’s Coburn’s strange treatment of revenues, in which tax rate increases are assumed to violate GOP values but perpetuation of existing rates–due, of course, to expire, which means keeping them will boost the budget deficit even more–somehow do not violate Democratic values, even though most Democrats opposed the Bush cuts initially and have been promising to reverse them ever since.
Even if you put aside such highly germane issues as responsibility for past, present and future deficits, and how different deficit reduction strategies affect a fragile economy characterized by deep and growing inequality, it’s clear that Coburn’s come-let-us-compromise plea is extremely unbalanced. So Beltway pundits should not get too carried away with congratulating him for his courage and generosity.